How Should We Deal with Incels?

Signs and flowers for the incel attack.

The first time I heard the word “incel” was immediately after the van attack in Toronto. But since then, I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to understand that movement because I was intrigued that I was so far out of the loop on a largely online pop culture development. My hypothesis now is that the incels, not the Muslims or radical right, are likely to become the most frequent domestic terrorists within North America.

What are incels?

Incel is a contraction of “involuntary celibate”. While the label initially was intended to be ironic and gender neutral, it quickly evolved to represent a group of men who want to be in a romantic relationship but aren’t. While some in the group seem simply cynical and withdrawn, the broader group seems furious.

People have characterized the incels as misogynistic, but I find it curious that this label seems to be sticking simply because it notably understates the situation. From what I’ve read, many incels certainly have the “I’m entitled to rape” attitude, but also seem to fervently hate males who are getting sex, railing against the “Chads”. Elliot Rodger—as far as I know the first incel mass murderer—killed four men and two women. Incels aren’t just blaming women—they’re blaming everyone for their situation except themselves. So, I think these guys are misanthropists, not just misogynists.

Why incels can be dangerous

The reason that I view the incels as particularly dangerous is because they are disconnected from society. Muslims are connected within their community and pretty well every Imam in North America delivers a message of peace.

In contrast, with the incels, we’re dealing with lonely people with poor social skills who have literally lost hope of having romantic relationships. While the incel movement puts the emphasis on sex, to me, that’s actually missing the key point. Romantic relationships aren’t largely about sex. They’re about being valued as a person. I think that’s why incels blame everyone else for their situation—because incels have become disconnected from the community that doesn’t seem to value them.

That’s why these guys are a terrorist threat. If someone is without hope and feeling persecuted by society, I think it’s quite easy for them to become radicalized. After all, what do they have to lose?

The natural solution

From what I read after the Toronto attack, most people seemed to believe that we should fight back against the incel movement using social pressure. “We should ostracize the incels, making it really clear that incel attitudes are completely unacceptable” was by far the most frequent argument. In fact, initially, this was my angry response to the attacks, too.

I’ve since reconsidered. While extracting social revenge on incels would be emotionally satisfying, it’s unlikely to have a positive effect, but rather worsen the situation.

Incels are feeling disconnected from society, as if the world is deliberately designed to persecute them. Ostracizing incels would be further detach them from society, and provide strong evidence they’re actually correct—that society is persecuting them. It would validate their worldview.

What’s more, I don’t think we need to make it clear to incels that society considers rape unacceptable—that’s completely obvious. For my entire lifetime, the discussion hasn’t been whether rape is acceptable, but rather about what actions constitute rape.

Someone could argue that incels are horrible, so it’s irrelevant if ostracizing incels makes them feel like garbage, because they are. But, even if you put aside the counter argument that it’s evil to deliberately exclude people and make them feel worthless, I think that’s a short-sighted view.

As technology progresses, it becomes easier and easier for a single person to kill a large number of people. Feeling superior and righteous kind of works when only ten people are killed and you don’t actually know any of them. But when the technology exists that enables some disgruntled scientist to kill millions using something he created in his garage, then one should really move beyond righteous fury to actually finding solutions. There’s real value in reducing the chance of an apocalypse.

The hard solution

So, I think the solution has to focus on some sort of outreach—identifying incels and individuals likely to become incels, and reattaching them to society. In essence, the strategy has to revolve around coming at incels from a place of love rather than hate. This doesn’t mean accepting incels’ misanthropy, but rather connecting with them as people who have value even if they aren’t in a romantic relationship. I believe that, once incels are reattached to society, all these negative and destructive attitudes that incels embrace will melt away.

Now, this might seem like the ravings of a feverish hippy, but there is evidence to support this approach. Dealing with racism seems harder than dealing with incels because skin color is such a visible barrier. Yet, this strategy has helped white supremacists back away from their ideology. What’s more, if you examine the scientific basis for torture, you find that “interrogators reported that rapport and relationship-building techniques were the most effective regardless of the interrogation goal. Confrontation techniques were the least effective.”

Thus, if a relationship-building strategy works to disarm hate groups and extract information from hostiles, it seems like a sensible approach to try with incels as well.

The likely outcome

That said, while I think the approach I propose has the highest chance of success, I think it’s hard to implement. Even if one agrees that this strategy is likely to be the most effective way to eliminate the incel threat, it’s difficult to convert this broad philosophy into actions.

What’s more, I think North Americans in general don’t care much about what works—they care mostly about delivering their righteous revenge. So, I think the ostracization and condemnation strategy is far more likely to be the North American response. Consequently, I think we’ll see incel-linked violence growing in both frequency and degree.

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